The right to academic freedom is not a fundamental right but a rationally considered academic right. The right to academic freedom is a right to be free from the interference of the state and governments and function to build an egalitarian nation. However, every right conferred upon an individual or an institution carries with it certain social responsibilities. These responsibilities give universities and institutions a significant opportunity to contribute to the qualitative development, intellectual, cultural and political growth, to interrogate inequities and generate forms of knowledge to shape the society it serves.
A free spirit of enquiry is mandatory for intellectual journeys toward discovery and the absence of hierarchic control reassures the autonomy and dignity of the stakeholders in the process. In over three and a half decades of teaching, I have witnessed a widening gap between what a university is supposed to be and the routine practice. The privileging of the office over the classroom, of administrators over teachers and researchers resulting from market utility, so beloved of the post-WTO education-as-service-industry has alienated higher education from its social obligations in shaping a just, fair and an equitable social order. It is not by accident that a hierarchic bureaucratic order has been set in place for the triumph of market statistics through the exercise of power and control. The nineteenth century utilitarian Jeremy Bentham proposed the panopticon for surveillance whose material manifestation was the colonial cellular jail in the Andaman Islands. Today many educational centres including colleges in Patna University are contemplating the use of CCTV cameras in public areas of institutions and shockingly in classrooms. The use of cameras in public areas, if used for security purposes rather than administrative espionage is justifiable, though not entirely desirable. In classrooms it is a disgrace to the dignity of the teachers and students, participants in the process of learning and producing knowledge. Teachers are evaluated every day by students and peer reasearchers and students evaluate teachers once a semester for official purposes. These official purposes are ill-defined because in most cases the results are never made public because the system is usually complicit with ideological and often irrational forms of vested interests. The deserving might make the undeserving top occupant of the hierarchic order very uncomfortable although experience teaches that the pachydermatous skills rather than academic and intellectual attributes are among the preferential virtues.
Transparency in evaluation and authorized recording of lectures for the benefit of students would be far more effective than this undignified form of espionage. Again, these covert operations would hardly be of any relevance if the recruitment were to be fair. Its need critiques itself. The academia works best when the best traditions of democracy fertilizes teaching and learning, a true participatory partnership that inspires and motivates the pursuit of excellence.
University campuses, its public spaces: libraries and classrooms; teachers, students and employees constitute the ‘public sphere’, a term popularized by Jurgen Habermas of the Frankfurt School. In the dichotomous positioning of the state and civil society, the public sphere constitutes a site for contested public opinion which functions as moderating agency against ill-conceived exercise of the state’s authority or the violation of civil codes. Thus the public sphere is plurally constituted and engenders diverse views and practices while creating space for dissent against discrimination, injustices and inequities. The growth of true democratic traditions is directly proportional to the development of the public sphere. In India, sadly, its educational systems, unable to produce a ‘critical mass’ because of the suppression of the public sphere has created what Noam Chomsky calls a ‘democratic deficit’. It is the ruinous lack on part of the state institutions to sustain and perpetuate democratic principles. Contrariwise, they obstruct the sharing of opinion and information and actively discourage dialogue and dissent. While India continues to uphold the colonial sedition law under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, it fails to appreciate the value of enlightened laws such as Section 43(1) of the British Education Act of 1986 which states ‘ Every individual and body or persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers’.
Are we then surprised when intolerance of diversities and threats to the constitution engender forms of exclusionary knowledge to which unthinking subscription entitles life and citizenship?